Labor Day is a peculiar holiday that sort of tumbled into existence. The idea of such a holiday probably never occurred to the first labor organizations in the early 1800s.

What is generally considered to be the first Labor Day observance was in New York City in 1882, when the then recently organized Central Labor Union was trying to bring together the many groups of workers that had been forming.
The central union declared a one-day strike in the city. All striking workers were expected to march in a parade, and then eat and drink at a giant picnic afterwards.
The typical factory worker in those days put in 60 hours, in a six-day week. And nobody ever heard of “vacations.”
That one-day strike Labor holiday caught on. By 1887, Oregon, Colorado, Massachusetts, New Jersey and New York officially proclaimed the Labor Day holiday, and by 1890 Connecticut, Nebraska and Pennsylvania had followed suit.
President Grover Cleveland's second administration began in 1893, just as the nation entered the most severe depression in its history. By 1894, about 25 percent of urban workers were unemployed.
There wasn’t much the president could do about it. But he made one easy gesture; he declared the first Monday in September to be a national holiday.
Reports of that day’s first official Labor Day parade in New York had an estimated 10,000 to 20,000 paraders, a wild guess because spectators began to join the march as it went by.
The parade ended at a park at 92 nd St. and Ninth Ave. (now Columbus Blvd.), where there were speeches and beer kegs. But many of the paraders belatedly went to work after participating.
Philadelphia was a bit slow in organizing one big Labor Day celebration, but by 1900, the day included 15,000 paraders who later gatherrd at a park on the Delaware River in Gloucester, New Jersey.
For a few years, there were political disagreements among local unions, and Philadelphia had two parades.
Early Labor Day celebrations honored those who worked, but they also showed the power of the unions as they sought an advantage in negotiations about hours and wages.
In 1905, the unions reunited for a single parade of about 30,000 people. They assembled at Broad St. and Girard Ave. and marched down Broad to Christian, then back to Chestnut, to Delaware Ave., to Arch St.
In the early 20th century, Labor Day changed as the growth of public transportation systems and automobile ownership allowed many city dwellers to travel over the holiday weekend. Trips to the Jersey beaches lured Philadelphians.
The First World War, the Depression and World War Two changed the tones of Labor Day observances. Union membership grew, with white collar workers such as teachers and government employees adding to the ranks.
Labor Day changed into a more end-of-summer, back to school, family oriented holiday with less emphasis on the concerns of the working man or woman.
Then, in 2012, the Made in America music festival struck the Parkway, and became the major annual Labor Day event. It was 130 years since 1882, when the most popular song was “The Holy City.” And those union men in New York went on strike for one day, and called it Labor Day.
Visit columnist Jim Smart’s web site at jamessmartsphiladelphia.com.

 

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